Into _The Water Knife_

Bacigalupi_The Water KnifeI’m 52% of the way into Bacigalupi’s near-future science fiction novel The Water Knife, and wanted to share some notes for our online reading/book club. (Relevant posts on this blog are tagged waterknife)

First, quick and general reactions with an eye on futurism.  Second, notes from a lit crit perspective.  Third, onward.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers.

I: General reactions

Quick summary: Water Knife takes place in the American southwest, principally the Las Vegas-Phoenix area, in a near future devastated by drought.  We follow three main characters: Angel, the titular water knife, a former thug and current fixer for a Las Vegas water baroness; Lucy, a journalist covering water and crime; Maria, a Texan climate refugee.

It’s a detailed and grim world.  “Big Daddy Drought” (8) has knocked America down from its superpower perch, as social collapse to varying degrees gnaws at major states and cities and China looms ever-larger as an advanced and philanthropic power.  Violence, disease (60, 178), inequality, and corruption are rife as American lurches towards becoming a narcostate (104).  Militias (79) and crooked cops ride herd over climate refugees, including faith-based Merry Perrys (a reference to former Texas governor Perry, I bet).

Some is based solidly on today’s world, like the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and the “third straw” to Las Vegas (thanks to Alan Levine).

The world continues to provide advanced technologies.  On the digital front we see phones with multiple and hidden operating systems (100), cryptocurrency (68, 113), augmented reality (“military glass”, 51), and social media that seems to have swallowed up journalism.  Other technologies appear, including just-in-time building construction, effective solar power (69), and a cheap plastic bag for recycling urine into drinkable water, the ClearSac (73).

Bacigalupi knits those characters and the world to hit several major themes.  Ecosystems, unsurprisingly, appear everywhere, from detailed descriptions of water systems (183, for example) to the human predator-prey arrangement. Belief is a big one, between the worship of La Santa Muerte and faith-based climate denialism.  Gender and sexuality appear, but in a retrograde fashion for 2016 readers, with men largely brutes and women all too often either victims or prostitutes.  History looms large for a book about the future, as characters remind us that people could have avoided this situation (Cadillac Desert appears twice so far), or compare the plot’s present to their past – i.e., our present.

II: A lit prof’s notes

Details that catch my lit prof’s eye:

The first page crams in a ton of hints for the book to come.  It hits us with labor, violence, Latino culture (both the Spanish language and Santa Muerte), and migration.  Leading with sweat brings to mind exertion and ecology.

The style is fast paced, with some interesting features.  We get neologisms and new slang, as is classic with science fiction: icy (for cool), wet (for ignorant; ironically applied to American migrants), fivers (wealthy people).  Dollops of Spanish and, to a lesser degree, Chinese show the impact of two social changes.  There’s a good amount of noir bitterness:

“Somebody’s got to bleed if anybody’s going to drink.”

“You sound like a Catholic.”(162)

Or: “Thick mud walls and personal solar panels heavily chained to the roof, looking like mental patients in danger of escape.” (152)

And some nice syntactic moments, where you have to read between the lines:

“Just because you’re Case’s pet doesn’t mean I can’t make your life miserable.”

Angel didn’t look up from the injunctions. “Just because you’re Case’s dog don’t mean I can’t toss you off this bridge.”

The seals and stamps on the injunctions all looked like they were in order.

“What have you got on Case that makes you so untouchable?” Braxton asked.(4)

Imagine Braxton’s face while Angel focuses on those seals and stamps, and as he changes tack.

More on names: “water knife” recalls “blade runner”, at least for me, with the full range of Phil Dick (inhuman humans, powerful religion) and William S. Burroughs (drugs, bad cops, violence, scary authorities).

The other names are pretty programmatic.  “Angel” is a bit on the nose for a protagonist, not helped by seeing himself as a devil (18) and having Saint Death tattooed on his back.  Lucy made me think of Dracula‘s Lucy Westenra, with “Lucy” drawing from “light”, and the threat of the light going out of the West.  I was correct, as we get this a few paragraphs after meeting her:

The light going out of the world. Lucy thought she’d read that somewhere— some old Christian thing. The death of Jesus, maybe. The light going out, forever.

Jesus blows out, and La Santa Muerte blows in. (20)

And Maria, well, gets to be Mary.  She’s a refugee and the major victim so far.  I expect to see her acting as mother or redeemer.

Is this novel a dystopia?  I don’t think so.  It’s semi-apocalyptic, that word appearing at least ten times, plus serving as a popular brand.

I was surprised at the amount of horror.  We get body parts, animals attacking people, people trapped under dead bodies (ex: 188).  It’s mostly drawn from crime, but Bacigalupi isn’t shy about touching some horror tropes.

III: onwards!

While reading I paid more attention to certain news stories, like this National Geographic article about global trends in water depletion.  I also drank more water, I think.

The publisher has a discussion page (thanks to Joe Murphy).

Overall, I’m fascinated and caught up.  Can’t wait to read more.

How are you all doing with the reading so far?

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20 Responses to Into _The Water Knife_

  1. David Allard says:

    I am having a hard time getting into the book. Only finished 10%. It is kind of confusing and I am having a hard time tracking what is going on and who the players are. Maybe more reading will clear things up for me. Bryan seems to have put things into perspective for me so that helps. Dystopia has arrived!!!

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    My copy has not arrived yet. Waiting, I read chapter 1 online), his earlier short story The Tamarisk Hunter, reviews, and background material. Decades in states fed by the Colorado River will no doubt contribute as well.

    I’ll keep the gender observation in mind. What really caught me though was the absence of NM and CO as players — until I realized of course they had already been crushed, re-colonized.

    • “Tamarisk Hunter” is very good.
      What do you make of this so far?

      • VanessaVaile says:

        The more I read (from and about), the more I am looking forward to the book. There’s also a difference across reviews from sources that have a direct Southwest and/or Colorado River connection and those that don’t. The book also gets strong recommendations from water management and econ experts.

      • Vanessa, how would you characterize those regional differences?

      • VanessaVaile says:

        Late seeing and replying to this — how would I characterize those differences? Reading from the outside, Knife is dystopian science fiction ~ from Southwest-Colorado River dependent sector: it’s not, and barely fiction. PS we already knew Cali was the big bad from the git-go.

  3. I, too, had a difficult time getting into the novel, but around 40% (thanks, Kindle) the separate narratives begin to cross, so it feels more complete.

    The references to Cadillac Desert make me think of other cultural cautionary tales (Silent Spring, An Inconvenient Truth) and how we value them now. Although Silent Spring effectively brought change, An Inconvenient Truth and other climate change tales are forgotten quickly. Will we, years later, dig up our DVDs and longingly say, “It was all right here,” as characters in The Water Knife do with Cadillac Desert? I’m not so sure. To what extent do warnings and alternate scenarios (science fiction) change behavior and policy? (I admit, I thought Cadillac Desert was a fictional work until I looked it up. #oops #PhoenixDowntheTubes)
    Repeatedly, characters regret not seeing the eventual consequences of their actions: “Somehow they hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them” (90). But right now, I’m not sure that’s our problem as a society. We see every day negative consequences of our collective actions and policies (gun violence, inequality, rising temperatures, etc.), but the overriding narrative is that we don’t change, things don’t improve, and everything is just as bad as before, which I don’t believe.

    As a teacher, I wonder what does this mean for how we learn? Learning from mistakes, from warnings, from alternate reality (via fiction or AR/VR), from games?

    Your thoughts?

    (oh, and regarding names, Maria was also a virgin.)

    • Greetings, Cassandra, and thank you for your comments!

      Do you think the novel wants to play the role of a decisive warning text, like Silent Spring, for the problem of desertification?
      When you finish the book, let us know if you think it sees this bad future as very likely?

      I’m almost done, and am seeing little opportunities for constructive action. It feels quite bitter and closed-off.

  4. Pingback: Paolo Bacigalupi: The Water Knife – A book is a dream you hold in your hand

  5. I cross-posted Bryan’s blog here at:
    I added my reaction at the end as I have finished the book. I don’t know that there are any “spoilers” in it, but maybe some of the detail I cover could be construed as such, so I won’t post it here. It’s also a few hundred words, and I don’t want to take over Bryan’s blog 🙂
    I’ll be interested especially in what others make of the three main characters.

  6. Steven Kaye says:

    Racing to catch up (74% according to Kindle, will try to finish this weekend, in part because I’m curious about Sandy’s thoughts on the three main characters). It’s interesting, as someone who moved to California in 2007, to see my adopted state as a source of terror. Now I really wish I’d read my copy of Cadillac Desert before starting this. I like the little details, like doing one’s laundry in johns’ apartments. So far my favorite quote is “I don’t need books about how things used to be. Everybody talks about how things used to be. I need a book about how I’m supposed to live now. Unless you got a book like that, I don’t need the weight.” The more openly didactic moments remind me of John Brunner.

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  8. Pingback: Finishing _The Water Knife_: the end of the world and what comes next | Bryan Alexander

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